Skip to main content

Remarks by Sally L. Smith at the National Gallery of Art

Thank you National Gallery of Art for hosting us here tonight. It is Bob Rauschenberg, Master of Modern Art, and the Rauschenberg Foundation, assisted by Bradley Jeffries and David White that have brought some of our board of trustees of the Lab School of Washington, faculty, friends and thirty distinguished art teachers here tonight. All of us here wish our dear fried Bob a speedy recovery and freedom from pain to enjoy all the good he has done in the world for so many people. For example, Bob has sponsored at the Lab School for ten years now this national contest for art teachers from all over the nation. This year, out of 250 applicants, thirty were chose from twenty-six states; thirty creative, thoughtful, talented human beings who teach students as young as preschool up to college age, those with learning disabilities and those without. They came in Thursday night for a reception, began early Friday morning to tour and study Lab School Methods of teaching children ages 5-19 with severe learning disabilities. They were treated to multi-media performances in our arts based educational institution by elementary school children, junior high and high school students.

Representing Bob today is one of his good friends, another giver, another heart, another innovator, an accomplished artist, Nancy Reddin Kienholz.

The 30 art teacher winners have spent all afternoon with Nancy who shared her passion for the arts and arts education with them. Thank you Nancy. She has created a poster for today’s event and a certificate for each art teacher. In addition, the Rauschenberg Foundation has given a $500 certificate for art supplies to each of the schools the thirty art teachers represent.

We have discussed today how confusing it is to teach children of average to above average intelligence who look typical but don’t learn typically. They have a disorder of the central nervous system that short circuits information coming in to the switchboard of the brain, often scrambles information, and interferes with the way it comes out. This impairs the orderly acquisition of knowledge and contributes to the devastating failure at school of intelligent often gifted students.

Parents don’t cause learning disabilities. Teachers don’t cause learning disabilities. They can make the problem better or worse but the problems are intrinsic to each individual. It’s often called the “hidden handicap.” Children and adults who are trying their hearts out are frequently called lazy and told they are not trying hard enough. Often they are called stupid. Many of them are not comfortable in the world of words. They are visual thinkers. They see shapes, forms, contours, colors, textures, movement. When they see a chameleon, a lizard that changes color, they don’t say to themselves “That is a chameleon” as many of us do. They study the shape, forms, contours, colors, textures, movement and want to touch it, feel it, play with it. As our artists here know, most children with learning disabilities have to learn through the visual concrete teaching, through touching and doing. When imparting knowledge we need to paint pictures in their minds through involving them thoroughly in experiences, hands-on-project learning and active learning. We see astonishing successes when we honor their different styles of learning.

Art teacher for years you have provided refuge for the different, solace for the wounded, nonjudgmental listening for the troubled. You provide a training ground for the talented artists but also a comfort zone for the students who feel alienated from schooling. You tend to accent the positive, build on strengths, value uniqueness. As found writer Marcel Proust remarked, “The real act of discovery is not in discovering new lands, but seeing with new eyes.”

The Lab Schools of Washington and Baltimore believe, as you do, in the power of the arts, particularity with children who have special needs. The arts demand involvement. They counteract passivity. The arts ignite the whole learning process. The arts help organize knowledge. Our experience is that the arts hold children’s attention and deal constantly with sequence and order-areas that cause the learning disabled so much trouble. The arts provide connections, linkages, and often clarify relationships.

You art teachers know that all the art forms help our students to build large storehouses of information. The arts are scholarly pursuits. When a Student experiences an art form usually it leads him or her into legends, myths, great literature, poetry, history, geography, anthropology, psychology- a whole host of academic subjects. Paintings on the Lascaux caves, Indian rain dances, jazz music introduce us to the history and spirit of the times. Shakespeare tutors us on the ways of human beings. The arts must be treated as rigorous academic subjects because they require reflection, high level thinking, critical thinking, and intense problem solving.

The arts civilize us. They articulate the human experience—the wonder, the joy, the beauty, the excitement, the sorrow, the anger. For children who feel badly about themselves, the arts offer a chance to say “I made it. I did it. I can do it again.” Children who feel bad about themselves can earn approval, applause, accolades through what they do in the arts.

Art teachers, we honor you today. We celebrate your giving. Too often you are the hidden treasures in our schools. We need to bring you out front and center in our schools. We must stop cutting the budgets in the arts and bring the arts more centrally into education.

A leading technology futurist, David Thornburg, said about education that “I believe the role of education in this new age is to help students weave magic carpets–magic carpets of the mind with which they can explore the infinite world of ideas at the speed of thought.”

You art teachers help students weave intricate magic carpets of the mind, with their own unique imprints on them. You empower through art many of your students to keep on trying, to trust adults, to care about their lives to reach for the stars. Thank you.

Robert Rauschenberg said in this room a few years ago, The possibility always exists to nourish an important new genius in learning disabled children, if their spirit is not broken and creative dreams are allowed to develop.

Founder/Director - The Lab School of Washington Professor/Head, Graduate Program in Learning Disabilities American University - Copyright 2003 - Sally L. Smith - All rights reserved.
Back to Top